Gender and Age in Village Life

The Family

Within the village, the family is the most basic and important unit of economic and social life. Locals define the family (jiating) as the group that shares a common cooking arrangement and household budget. After marriage, sons ideally stay on in the same house as the parents, while daughters go to live with the husband's family. In general, women come from a poorer family than the one they marry into. In practice, this means women come from more remote mountain villages and marry in the direction of the town; while men remain in the village of their birth. The husband's family is responsible for providing newly wedded couples with a room and a bed, and the wife's family with the other furnishings the couple will need to set up a house. Before marriage, however, the young adults often contribute significant earnings to the parents in order to finance the costs of their marriage. The couple will typically remain as part of the parental family after marriage, for a year or two, until about the time of the birth of their first (and perhaps only) child. At this time they "divide the family" (fenjia) and the couple, while they will likely remain in the same house, will begin to keep an independent budget and cook separately from the original household. Before Liberation they would, at this time, also receive their share of the land assets, but now all land belongs to the government and is partitioned out on an individual basis. Nevertheless, at the time of the division, the new family becomes independently responsible for the farming of their share of the agricultural lands. For more detail on marriage practice see Croll (1981) and Hsu (1949).

At the time the last child is ready to separate, the parents, still retaining their share of the agricultural land, will work out a mode of cooperation remaining as members of one or more of the offsprings' households. One or two old people are not a viable unit since they would not have enough labor to grow their own food, and would have little or no opportunity for wage labor. There is a great variety of arrangements for cooperation between ageing parents and the younger offspring. A common prototype is for the father to join the household of one son and the mother the household of another. One old man I knew moved every six months from one son's house to the other. In some cases the parents will remain with just one of their offspring but the other sons will all be expected to contribute to the cost of their food and other expenses. In one family, they held a lottery every year to determine who would support the "old mother."

There are many exceptions to the patrilocal marriage pattern. Particularly in cases where a family has no son, a daughter can take a husband who will come to live in her natal household, inverting the pattern of patrilocal marriage arrangements: the husband's family provides the furnishings and the bride's family the room. The man may come from a village where brides have come from before or from a new and relatively unknown location, but should not come from a family where daughters have married to. Men are willing to take up such arrangements in cases where their own natal family is located in a poorer or more remote area where they feel their economic opportunities are too restricted. The local name for these men is "shangmen" or "those who hold up the doorway." This is a practice particularly favored by widows who have a daughter but no son. Widows without sons, or whose sons are still young, have often had a particularly difficult time. Especially in the Old Society, but continuing to today, the rules of inheritance have put women in an odd and unfortunate position in the rich and abundant dramas of inheritance disputes. In the past, women did not own property. If a woman became a widow while her children were still young, she therefore had a particularly hard time of it. Always the outsider in her husband's village, short of labor and with few allies, she would have to raise the children in an environment where her husband's kin saw it in their interest to get rid of her and her children so that they might reclaim the family patrimony. If she remarried or moved out, she then forfeited her children's rights to any of the husband's property. This problem was not eliminated in production team times. In Xiakou more than one woman had to struggle against local efforts to make them leave since there were still finite resources belonging both to teams and to families that people were reluctant to share. Although I have no particular examples from the post-reform period, I imagine the problem continues. Before liberation, such incoming husbands would be expected to change their family names and become like adopted sons of the wife's parents. To not do so was viewed suspiciously; it was thought the man was trying to take over the clan's patrimony for his own family. Even now, the children of such marriages may take their mother's last name, but, they say men no longer change their names, and most children take the name of their fathers since the land they will eventually acquire belongs to the nation-state and not the family. There seems to be little or no stigma attached to such cases, and many parents will point out that daughters are good to keep around because they tend to be more filial, or more generous with their parents than sons. Out of 36 families in team two, 11 families exhibited matrilocal marriages. Families frequently include more than one married couple. In the official records it is usually the case that the woman remains on the village roster, but the in-marrying males are not listed as members of the family, and so are not given land; their children, however, will be.

Young and Old

The issue of dividing the family the caring for the ageing is a highly contentious one in the villagers' lives. A joke was once told to me: a family was dividing their belongings and one son said to the other, "you can have both the pigs and you take mother." The other replied, "thanks, that's great, I'll take both pigs but you take mother." Many of the families in the village had ongoing battles over such arrangements. Most of the fights were simply that a particular son or sons were felt to not contribute their fair share to the parents' upkeep, or, seen from the other side, that parents used too much of the young couple's resources in their own upkeep.

Wu Guangjun and Yang Yong (both approximately 60 years old) had five children, two of whom were sons. Both these sons had rooms in their natal house, although they were both also absent for significant periods earning money. The couple's fifth child, a daughter, was not yet married and helped her parents with the farming and household responsibilities. Wu Guangjun was dissatisfied when the second of the two sons wished to divide from his parents. His dissatisfaction was compounded by the fact that even before this couple divided, they had kept a certain portion of their own earnings, not sharing it with the household. He was bitter over the fact that he and his wife, as is standard, did a large proportion of the care and feeding of all three of their grandchildren, two from one son and one from the other. The sons, for their part, perhaps felt their father was too eager to start taking it easy and too expensive in his habits, since he liked to smoke, drink liquor and visit the tea house. Such examples are numerous.

There were also many cases where the ageing parents felt they were made to work too hard for their upkeep, or that the children were tight-fisted when it came to buying the medicine that the old inevitably require. One old woman of 76 was extremely unhappy because her husband and her children made her cut pig grass on a daily basis, although she was feeble and partially blind. She told me she was tired of this and was determined not to live to see the next year.

While opinions differed as to whether the severity of the conflicts between young and old were any greater than in the past, many people seemed to believe that the past was no different from today in this regard. One person told me that this kind of conflict is one that is passed down from father to son. If a son treats his father poorly, he, in turn, will be treated poorly in his old age, as in the saying that "water falling off a roof always strikes in the same place." On the other hand, there was a widespread feeling that young people today are generally less moral in their ways, that they care about money more than other things that should be more important, such as human relations. And emphasis on "filial piety" was an important thrust in locally produced pamphlets and other propaganda distributed at the local temple.

In addition, one could read into the situation several structural reasons why old people's power vis-a-vis the younger members of the family may be in decline. In the past, agriculture was the mainstay of the local economy and so the parent's share of land holdings may well have counted for more. Nowadays wage labor is more important, and since young people are best at the heavy physical work that characterizes most of the local work opportunities, the old are cut off from this source of income. As one young man told me, wages are determined by the amount of rock quarried by a work crew, so people do not want laborers over forty years old in their group. In the household, young people earning such wages frequently want to divide from their parental families and enjoy control over what they feel should be their independent earnings. When the young have financial problems they are much more willing to be part of the larger family pool and parents see in this dynamic a cause for resentment. Furthermore, in days past, the village elders used to have a special recourse when the young were disrespectful which they no longer have today. In the Old Society, if a son were felt to misbehave, the older men of the clan would determine that he should be disinherited and so run out of the village. Since the government now controls access to the land and place of residence, this is not an option.

Names in Xiakou tend to have three syllables. The first syllable is the family name; the second syllable is the generational name; the third syllable is the given name. Older people in Xiakou often comment that people today do not show as much respect for the generational distinctions (as opposed to age distinctions) that were considered critical in the traditional system of kinship and now this whole system of generational names is falling out of favor.

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Women and Men

Division of labor within the family is not rigidly prescribed and entertains a high degree of flexibility, although the overall importance of work is an important social value. The Potters (1990, p.180-95) give an excellent description of the importance of work in defining good relationships relevant here. Both women and men will cook, clean, do dishes, cut fodder, work on the crops, carry heavy loads to and from the marketing centers, and go out for wage labor. Nevertheless, women tend to do more of the housework and men tend to earn wages with greater frequency. Furthermore, a few tasks do have firm gender associations.

It is more categorically women's work to wash clothes and cut pig grass. Very few if any rural men wash clothes unless there are no women in the house. It was said of one man that although he was married, he washed his own clothes, but I suspect this was a belief that stemmed from a view that his wife was too dominating rather than any physical evidence that he actually did so. Cutting pig grass is more easily a shared responsibility but one which married men in their prime will avoid. Nevertheless, children of both sexes and some old men will do it regularly without stigma. When in a neighboring village a man took leave of our conversation to go cut pig grass, another man quipped "see how many men in this village go to cut pig grass and you will realize that the graves of our fathers have not been well-placed." Many Chinese believe that the placement of a grave effects the fortune of the descendants. Cutting goat grass is more gender neutral than cutting pig grass. It grows on the mountain tops and so is a more physically demanding task. Also, the history of goat husbandry is much shorter than pig husbandry in this region.

It is men's work to carry the wet manure buckets to the fields. This is said to be because it is heavy and strenuous work. One of the most fundamental changes in traditional agriculture, the advent of chemical fertilizer, is thought to be necessary now since men are often away from the village earning money and not available to carry as much organic manure as in the past. Chemical fertilizer is more concentrated and so easier to carry to the crops. While women can and will carry manure buckets As a standard in this area, women should be able to carry up the equivalent of their own body weight up and down the mountain paths on their backs. One woman I met worked carrying over one hundred pounds of milk on her back every morning down the steep narrow path from the top of Qian Jia mountain., men who work away normally make a special effort to return home during the planting season specifically to help carry the large amounts of manure that need to be moved at that time. Nevertheless women are literally shouldering more and more of the agricultural burden.

While a variety of opportunities for employment for women exist, rock quarrying is the main source of village wage earnings, and it employs no women. Women are hired for some strenuous manual labor jobs such as road maintenance. While most all of the wage work available to men and women paid poorly, women were left to take up the worst paying jobs. Men typically earned eight to ten yuan a day or two hundred yuan a month; women who sought to earn wages frequently took piece work in factories or small enterprises which paid as low as 50 yuan a month. Several women I knew even paid their employers in order to apprentice; one young woman paid a tailor several hundred yuan a year to apprentice with him and only after two years would she have an opportunity to earn wages. As a result, men were more likely than women to go out to labor; while women were more likely than men to work at sideline enterprises such as goat husbandry. Beginning in the late 90s, new policies (the forest to farmland or tuaigen huanlin) have encouraged a large scale conversion of agricultural land to forestry, and with this a new trend has begun to emerge. Both young men and women are leaving home to earn a wage, leaving their children with the grandparents in the village to manage alone.

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People in Xiakou locate themselves within a context of nesting boxes of broader political identities. They see clearly ways in which the affairs of the township, the province and even the international community effect their lives. The oppositions between young and old, men and women, one family and another, villager and outsider are important ones in the daily lives of farmers. While the family is an important framework for the organization of daily affairs of subsistence, the domestic sphere is not isolated from events in the broader spheres of larger political groupings and economic trends. Increasingly, the pressure and ability to earn wages are affecting the shape of the family and the patterns of power and authority in the village.

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About This Essay

Gender and Age in Village Life

This essay explores the radical impacts of the revolution and post-socialist reforms on the two key categories through which traditional hierarchies of authority were defined: gender and age. An earlier version of this essay appeared as a portion of the chapter entitled “Xiakou Today” in Pam Leonard's 1994 Ph.D. thesis “The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village.” Additions and revisions were made in 2005.